“You’ve got a time machine, I’ve got a gun. What the hell, let’s kill Hitler!”
Well, due to an appointment to celebrate my mum’s birthday, I didn’t get to see the new episode until the afternoon after it was broadcast. Cue much avoidance of every part of the internet that might have spoilered me, however unintentionally. A day’s worth of abstinence from Facebook, Twitter and even the Guardian’s TV section. It was like going back to the days before all that existed! But now, finally, I’ve caught up on this most anticipated of TV sci fi events. And the result? It’s not half bad, though really, it’s not half as good as it thinks it is.
What with that cheekily ridiculous title, it should have been pretty obvious that, against all expectations, this was not going to be one of the show’s darker, angst-ridden episodes like the one that preceded it. No haunted self-realisation on the Doctor’s part here. Just a lot of complex revelations imparted via one of the sillier plots that Steve Moffat has yet cooked up. Indeed, if there isn’t such an adjective as ‘Moffaty’ someone needs to invent it to describe the style of episodes like this. Bonkers, inspired concepts (a chameleonic robot staffed by miniaturised justice-dispensing Simon Wiesenthal-alikes). Timey-wimey complexity – so if ‘Mels’ was Amy and Rory’s best mate growing up, did she exist in their previous timeline or is this a newly written one? Heaps of self-reference – the Doctor giving River her TARDIS shaped diary, River interviewing to study archaeology at ‘Luna University’. Witty, Douglas Adams-like dialogue – “You will feel a slight tingling sensation followed by death”. Flirtation crossed with edgy danger, with classic references – “Hello Benjamin”. Oh, and lots and lots of River Song.
There’ve been a few complaints I’ve seen that, this year in particular, Doctor Who is actually morphing into a new entity called The River Song Show, in which the former main cast are relegated to supporting players. There’s perhaps some truth in that – Alex Kingston’s high-camp scenery-chewing doesn’t leave much room for anyone else to make an impression, and fanboys in particular seem annoyed that she is, basically, upstaging the hero of the show. It’s the same basic problem I have with Paul Magrs’ Doctor Who spinoff character Iris Wildthyme; she dominates the stories she’s in so much that I end up thinking she might just as well have her own show, a sort of twee Coronation Street in time and space.
But whether you like her or not – and it seems to be a Marmite “love her or loathe her” situation – River is central to the overall plot that Steve Moffat has devised, and as this episode had to resolve any number of hanging plot threads to do with her, it was right and proper that she should take centre stage here.
And so she did; that cheeky episode title turned out to be a classic bit of Moffat misdirection as Hitler barely featured in the story at all, only appearing as a sort of comic sideshow. Mind you, it’s fair to say – as Moffat has, along with David Mitchell in today’s Observer – that if you’re going to approach the character of Hitler in a show with this kind of light tone, it’s best to deal with him as a joke rather than a monster. After all, what better way could there be of declawing one of history’s worst figures than to make him the butt of cheesy humour? It’s an approach that’s always worked for Mel Brooks, and so it does here. In his brief appearance, the hapless Fuhrer gets threatened by a justice dispensing robot before being lamped in the jaw by Rory (yay, Rory!) then unceremoniously bundled into a cupboard from which we never see him emerge.
In the interim, though, he does manage to accidentally shoot ‘Mels’ triggering the regeneration that was the first twist in a number scattered throughout the episode. To be honest, though, I wasn’t entirely surprised that ‘Mels’ turned out to be River. Her sudden insertion into Amy and Rory’s backstory seemed very suspect; she was so larger than life as she screamed onto the scene in a stolen Corvette to hold a gun on the Doctor, really, who else could she have been? Not to mention the little clues dropped in the dialogue – “cut to the song…” and the glaringly obvious that ‘Mels’ just had to be short for ‘Melody’.
It’s a typical bit of Moffat cleverness that, while Amy was pining for her lost daughter, she’d actually been bringing her up – in a way – since they were both children. And that ‘Mels’ was the one who got Amy and Rory together, thereby ensuring her own existence. Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan played that scene with romantic comedy cuteness that really worked, with Amy’s revelation that she’d thought Rory was gay making me laugh out loud. However, I did think that, what with the very believable concern Amy had previously shown for her daughter and her desire to bring her up in a normal, loving family, she seemed oddly unconcerned that that’s now plainly never going to happen. I would have expected, especially from Steve Moffat, some real angst about the loss of her experience of motherhood. Still, perhaps that’s yet to come in a future episode.
It could, in fact, end up as yet another thing for the Doctor to torment himself with guilt about. I said that there was no dark examination of the Doctor’s soul this week, but there was some nicely underplayed angst in the business with the TARDIS’ Voice Interface system. As it manifested itself as the Doctor himself, he winced and said, “no, someone I like”, at which point it tried to be every companion from Rose onwards: “No. Guilt. More guilt. Is there anyone in the universe I haven’t completely screwed up?” But it was lovely that it eventually shaped itself into little Amelia Pond – it was great to see Caitlin Blackwood back in the role, together with her appearance in the earlier flashbacks.
But the guilt wasn’t dwelt upon for too long; this was a very fast moving episode, cut together with the sort of ferocious pace one might expect from Michael Bay (albeit with ten times as much intelligence). And besides, we had to get back to River –she hadn’t been on screen in minutes. So off she went, knocking over Nazi soldiers with a blast of regeneration energy before roaring off on a motorbike to threaten a restaurant full of Third Reich bigwigs that she’d machine gun them if they didn’t all give her their clothes.
With this sort of material to work with, Alex Kingston ditched any sort of restraint in her performance. Next to that, John Barrowman seems a model of underplaying! I did think it was a bit of a shame that we couldn’t see more of Nina Toussaint-White as Mels, as she was every bit as much a diva – just a different one to Alex Kingston. Still, if anyone was still wondering, I’d say the regeneration finally answers the question of whether Time Lords can change ethnicity between incarnations.
Matt Smith managed to more than match her, though. He was effortlessly flirting with her even as his “own bespoke psychopath” tried determinedly to kill him in a very funny – and well-directed – scene in Hitler’s office. Later, he managed to convincingly splice dignified death struggles (convincingly enough that I half wondered whether we were somehow going to get a surprise regeneration) with well-timed comedy. His ‘Rule One’ – “Never be serious if you can avoid it” was almost a manifesto for this episode itself.
While Karen Gillan was suitably fiery, if a little more blank than usual as Amy’s robot replica (a dig at those who say she can’t act, perhaps?), the other real star of this episode had to be Arthur Darvill as Rory. While still convincingly a normal bloke, his world-weary resignation to not understanding what was going on was a comic delight. And he got to be all Indiana Jones as he chased after River on a stolen motorbike, not to mention getting to say, “Shut up, Hitler!” which is a line you don’t get to say very often in an acting career. For me though, the moment when I just wanted to hug him – and perhaps even go to bed with him – was that close up of his barely composed face as he struggled not to blurt out his love for Amy in the flashback scene. Beautifully underplayed.
With all this romcom stuff going on, though, Moffat still managed to pack in a Douglas Adams-like sci fi concept with the ‘Teselecta’ (is that how you spell it?). A shape shifting robot run by miniature people dispensing justice throughout time and space managed to be reminiscent both of Red Dwarf’s Inquisitor and that old children’s comic strip – was it in the Beezer?- in which we see glimpses of the tiny people who live inside and control the hero of the strip.
It also served a useful exposition function, with its records of the Doctor’s life and death. So now we know that ‘The Silence’ are a religious order rather than a species, and that they’re waiting for “the silence to fall when the question is asked”. Again, it was hard not to think of Douglas Adams and the quest for ‘the Ultimate Question’, though I’d expected the robot to reveal that the question was “why?”. Thankfully, Moffat wasn’t that obvious, and that part of the arc remains “unknown”.
So, a typically clever Moffat episode packed with comedy, temporal paradoxes (“You named your daughter after… your daughter.”), flirty dialogue and some real revelations that move on the contentious story arc that’s so far dominated this year. I think a lot of people will be rather disappointed that they didn’t actually get a story about killing Hitler, although I had expected the title to be even more of a metaphysical reference than it actually was. And I know it’s carping, but I do tend to agree that River may be coming to dominate the show a bit too much; she was integral to this episode, but I’m actually hoping we get a bit of a break from her in the next few weeks. Along with, perhaps, some good standalone episodes. I enjoy following an engaging, complex plot arc as much as the next nerd, regardless of the criticism it’s drawn, but I do also think that Doctor Who can do great standalone episodes. The Doctor’s Wife was one such, but hopefully we’ll see a few more like that in the coming weeks.
Finally, an incidental detail – I love Matt Smith’s new coat! Oh dear, another one to hunt for a convincing replica of in charity shops and eBay. Thankfully, I already have a Luftwaffe jacket similar to the one River appropriated in the restaurant, though fortunately it’s post war and devoid of swastikas!